Skip Navigation
A weekly reckoning with our heated planet—and the fight to save it

Being Against Poop in Rivers Is Now “Un-American”

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt has an unusual interpretation of Oklahoma v. Tyson.

Kevin Stitt gesticulates while seated onstage.
Dylan Hollingsworth/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Kevin Stitt, governor of Oklahoma, speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, in 2022.

If a company fills a river with bird poop to the point that fish in nearby lakes asphyxiate, is it “un-American” to sue them? Oklahoma Republican Governor Kevin Stitt thinks so. Last week, he signed a law that makes it impossible to sue a poultry company for pollution as long as it has a “Nutrient Management Plan” that complies with state requirements.

“You can’t have a business have a permit, doing what they’re supposed to do, and then come in and let a frivolous lawsuit take place and somehow put them out of business. That’s un-American. It’s not going to happen in Oklahoma,” local news channel KFOR reported Stitt saying. “We had a former Attorney General that sued the chicken industry even though they were following all the rules at the time, saying they should have done something different.”

You may be wondering what all this is about. Stitt was referring to a case that began almost two decades ago: Oklahoma v. Tyson Foods. Not everyone would agree with Stitt’s description of what happened there.

In 2005, then–Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, a Democrat, sued 11 companies over the pollution of the Illinois River. The companies, the case alleged, were spreading large amounts of chicken waste and bedding over cropland in the Illinois River Watershed, which covers parts of eastern Oklahoma and northwest Arkansas. While using chicken waste as fertilizer is allowed in some situations, this quantity of chicken waste, the state argued, led to high amounts of phosphorus runoff that polluted local waterways and, in turn, led to an overgrowth of algae and lower dissolved oxygen levels. Fish died, the Illinois River looked and smelled gross, the quality of the drinking water produced by the watershed suffered, and populations of fish and other wildlife in Lake Tenkiller declined.

“Frivolous” (Stitt’s word above) is an odd adjective to describe that lawsuit. Thirteen years after the trial ended in 2009, U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell finally ruled in 2023 that the state was right about almost everything. While the state couldn’t prove the bit about the quality of the drinking water, he said, the phosphorus levels, algae levels, wildlife death, and aesthetic degradation were clear, and Frizzell didn’t find the companies’ argument that they were following the law very compelling.

“Historically, defendants have done little—if anything—to provide for or ensure appropriate handling or management of the poultry waste,” he wrote. They “knew or should have known no later than the late 1990s that their growers’ land application of litter was a primary source of the excess phosphorus in the waters,” at which point they were obligated to take action or else fall afoul of state and federal public nuisance law, which stipulates that you’re not allowed to interfere with the public’s use and enjoyment of these waterways. And Oklahoma state law makes it clear, the judge added, that even if companies are following a strict pounds-per-acre regimen for chicken litter, “litter must be applied in a manner that will prevent pollution of State waters.”

Implying, as Governor Stitt did last week, that these sorts of lawsuits are putting law-abiding mom-and-pop shops out of business is also a little odd. Four of the companies named were either Tyson Foods or its subsidiaries. Tyson is the second-largest food company in the nation, right behind PepsiCo, and among the top 10 largest food companies in the world. Another two were Cargill and its subsidiary Cargill Turkey Production. Cargill is the largest privately held company in the country, with an estimated value of around $60 billion. Then there’s Cal-Maine Foods, with revenue above $1.3 billion, which was among those found liable in 2023 for conspiring with other companies to raise egg prices. And George’s Inc and George’s Foods LLC, which cut a $5.8 million deal with the Department of Justice last May as part of the department’s inquiry into poultry companies (including Cargill, which settled for $15 million) conspiring to suppress workers’ wages. Peterson Farms and Simmons Foods admittedly don’t have quite this sort of profile, although obviously no company that can recall 13 tons of TGI Friday’s boneless chicken bites, as Simmons did in December, is small.

The companies in question are now upset that they’re being told to pay to fix something that happened a long time ago—an objection that sort of cuts both ways, since the people affected by their actions are probably mad that it took this long too. The tribal governments of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), and Seminole Nations have denounced the new law giving the poultry industry immunity from these sorts of lawsuits. This is the background to Stitt’s remarks declaring these suits “un-American.”

The Oklahoma case is part of a bigger picture. Protecting lakes, rivers, and drinking water is actually extremely popular. Polls typically find higher support for that than for fighting climate change. But as TNR’s Kate Aronoff and others have repeatedly observed, the legal system is typically much more favorable to corporations than to their victims—human or animal.

Oklahoma has now made that system even more favorable to corporations. It’s one in a series of recent news events indicating that even the most clear-cut, commonsense moves to protect the public are going to be fought tooth and nail. On Monday, industry groups sued the federal government over a new standard to keep PFAS—chemicals “associated with developmental delays in children, decreased fertility in women and increased risk of some cancers,” per The New York Times—out of drinking water. I previously wrote about companies’ loud objections to being told they could no longer decaffeinate coffee using a chemical so dangerous that it’s been banned for paint stripping since 2019.

Voters say these issues matter to them. But if that’s the case, they’re going to have to show that at the polls. Relying on administrators and courts to protect them is getting riskier by the day.

Good News/Bad News

Bill McKibben sees hope in a new report suggesting that clean energy adoption is accelerating. Read his analysis at his newsletter, The Crucial Years.

Runoff from a large landfill, possibly including PFAS, may be contaminating waterways and even organic compost in the genteel winery-and-tourist-filled Napa Valley, The Guardian reports.

Stat of the Week
1.5 billion

That’s the number of people around the globe who experienced dangerous heat where they live between January and May of this year, according to The Washington Post.

What I’m Reading

Why a new method of growing food on Mars matters more on Earth

Brazilian astrobiologist Rebeca Gonçalves and her colleagues think an ancient Mayan farming technique could work well for growing food on Mars. And that also means it could work well in some of the increasingly arid, unpredictable climates on Earth:

Intercropping, or growing different crops in close proximity to one another to increase the size and nutritional value of yields, requires less land and water than monocropping, or the practice of continuously planting just one thing. Although common among small farmers, particularly across Latin America, Africa, and China, intercropping remains a novelty in much of the world. This is partly because of the complexity of managing such systems and largely unfounded concerns about yield loss and pest susceptibility. Modern plant breeding programs also tend to focus on individual species and a general trend toward less diversity in the field.

This is a missed opportunity, according to Gonçalves. Evidence suggests intercropping can combat the impacts of climate change and unsustainable farming practices on yields in degraded soils, which comprise as much as 40 percent of the world’s agricultural land. “The potential of intercropping really is very high for solving some of the climate change issues,” she said.

Read Ayurella Horn-Muller’s full report at Grist.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

You’d Be Amazed How Many People Want Big Oil Charged With Homicide

A new poll shows overwhelming support for holding oil and gas companies accountable via the courts.

Smokestacks release giant plumes of smoke into the sky.
Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Getty Images
Smokestacks at a petroleum processing plant

Sixty-two percent of likely voters think oil and gas companies “should be held legally accountable for their contributions to climate change,” according to a new poll published this week. Not only do 84 percent of Democrats think that but also 59 percent of independents and even 40 percent of Republicans.

These are striking numbers. As I wrote in this newsletter last month, all too often pollsters ask people vague questions about whether people support “steps” to address climate change, without specifying what those steps are. That didn’t happen with this poll, which was conducted by the progressive think tank Data for Progress and consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen. This was the exact question: “Do you think that oil and gas companies should be held legally accountable for their contributions to climate change, including their impacts on extreme weather events and public health?” In addition to the aforementioned political divides, women said “yes” more often than men, young people more often than old people, and Black or Latino people more often than white people—but that still adds up to a striking degree of support for accountability for fossil fuel companies.

Nor did the poll stop there. It also asked whether people supported not just civil lawsuits but criminal prosecutions for “reckless or negligent homicide.” This is a relatively new idea, and a somewhat edgy one for a lot of people. But 49 percent of respondents said they supported this too, compared to only 39 percent who said they’d oppose.

The New Republic has been covering legal approaches to climate accountability for years now: both the civil suits and more recent approaches. Public Citizen’s Aaron Regunberg and David Arkush made the case for criminal prosecutions, and specifically homicide charges, in March. “In criminal law, homicide means causing a death with a culpable mental state,” they reasoned. “If someone substantially contributes to or accelerates a death, that counts as ‘causing’ it. If they did so intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly, that counts as ‘culpable mental state.’ So the basic questions in a climate homicide trial are as follows: Did fossil fuel companies substantially contribute to or accelerate deaths, and did they do so at least recklessly, if not knowingly or intentionally?”

Criminal charges can do things that civil lawsuits can’t. “In today’s thinking,” Regunberg and Arkush wrote, “tort law—the law of civil wrongs—seeks economically efficient outcomes: The question is about whether one party should give another some money. Criminal law, by contrast, is concerned with society’s fundamental values—with morality.” And that’s reflected in the effects of these types of law: “Where tort law prices misconduct, criminal law prohibits it.”

Regunberg and law professor Donald Braman subsequently proposed another novel legal approach: civil asset forfeiture. That’s a tool that’s typically used by cops to confiscate property they suspect of being used for committing crimes—a system that disproportionately penalizes poor people and minorities, and in which it’s often very hard to recover the seized assets even if no crime is ever proven. But it was originally intended, Regunberg and Braman wrote, to be used against “large-scale criminal enterprises.” Since legal experts are now arguing that fossil fuel companies’ activities “could fall under the category of criminal violations such as reckless endangerment, criminal mischief, conspiracy and racketeering, and homicide,” Regunberg and Braman wrote, it stands to reason that the “pipelines, refining plants, and oil reserves” that are “recklessly endangering entire communities” could be confiscated by the police.

And then there’s Kate Aronoff’s latest. Given that fossil fuel companies have manufactured and promoted plastics for decades—even misleading the public about plastics recycling—there really ought to be a way, she argued, to hold them accountable at the international level for microplastics, which have now been found not only in “food, water, blood, and placenta” but also in human testicles. “In a recent book,” she wrote, “Spanish economist and environmental adviser David Lizoain makes the case for bringing fossil fuel executives in front of the International Criminal Court, and understanding rising temperatures—and the resulting mass deaths—as climate genocide.”

The international legal system is, on the whole, much more favorable to companies than it is to their potential victims, Kate argued. And that’s arguably true in the domestic arena as well. Which brings us back to the recent poll: If this many people favor legal accountability, perhaps that may be about to change.

Good News/Bad News

Bill McKibben writes in The New Yorker about a photography exhibit he found particularly effective at communicating the urgency of the climate crisis. The Asia Society’s “Coal + Ice” exhibit contains “perhaps the single most powerful rendering of the climate crisis I’ve ever seen,” he writes—specifically, photographer Gideon Mendel’s depiction of people all over the world standing in flood waters. “Mendel’s videos,” McKibben continues, “invoke change over physical space: the same foreign and scary thing is happening around the globe, simultaneously.” (If that doesn’t sound like good news, recall that effective policy depends first upon awareness and communication.)

Former Environmental Protection Agency employees with the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility have accused the EPA of incorrectly reporting the results of PFAS testing in pesticides, falsely telling the public that these long-lasting, potentially damaging chemicals had not been found in samples when, in fact, they had been.

Stat of the Week

26 days

On average, people experienced 26 more excessively hot days in the past year than they would have without climate change. Read The New York Times’ report here.

What I’m Reading

In a warmer world, tornado behavior is changing—this is how we can prepare

At least 24 people were killed last weekend in severe thunderstorms and tornadoes in multiple states. Tornado intensity and frequency are famously much, much harder to tie to climate change than hurricanes or atmospheric rivers are. But peak months seem to be shifting earlier in the season, and the pattern of touchdowns seems to be shifting eastward, the BBC’s Cinnamon Janzer reports.

“We have way more people living in the mid-south and east of the Mississippi River than we do in the Great Plains,” [meteorology professor Victor] Gensini says. The higher population densities of the states seeing an increase in storms means that they have the potential to do more damage.

As tornado seasons and locations change, one thing remains the same—the importance of preparation.… Trudy Thompson Shumaker, a volunteer and national spokesperson for the American Red Cross, says that education is key to preparing for tornadoes. “Know what to do and how to stay safe,” she says. This starts with identifying the safest room in your home—an interior, windowless space. Bathrooms sometimes meet these requirements, but a closet can also work, as can an emergency stairwell in larger buildings.

She also suggests assembling an emergency kit that contains the supplies necessary for sheltering in place for two weeks. “You’ll need water because the water supply may be unsafe. You’ll need a battery-powered radio and phone chargers,” says Thompson Shumaker. Before a tornado strikes, “go through your phone and write down the important numbers you’ll need if your phone goes dead.”

Read Cinnamon Janzer’s full report at the BBC.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

American Farms Have a Drug Problem

The meat industry is pumping livestock full of antibiotics, exacerbating drug resistance in humans.

A person sticks a syringe into a cow's udder.
Farm Images/Getty Images
A vet administers an antibiotic tube to prevent mastitis in dairy cattle.

Imagine if we were to lose the tremendous medical advances of the past century. If people began to routinely die from what we now consider minor infections. If the surgeries we’ve come to take for granted suddenly got much, much riskier.

This isn’t that far-fetched. The growing risk from drug-resistant bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites, England’s former chief medical officer Sally Davies told The Guardian in an interview published this week, is “more acute” than climate change and could make Covid-19 “look minor.” Among the many dangers, The Guardian’s Kat Lay reported, is that “widespread resistance would make much of modern medicine too risky, affecting treatments including cesarean sections, cancer interventions and organ transplantation.”

This is scary stuff—all the more so because drug resistance is often presented as a massive, multifaceted problem that is nearly impossible to tackle. Maybe you’ve heard of it in the context of doctors overprescribing antibiotics, or patients not taking the full course of antibiotics when they are prescribed. Maybe you’ve heard of drug-resistant tuberculosis developing and circulating in prisons, or maybe you’ve been told that the chief driver is overprescription of antibiotics in low-income countries, meaning that solving this would require an unprecedented level of global coordination and foreign aid.

Drug resistance is a complicated, multifaceted problem—and it will require global coordination. But there’s one really large lever we could pull that would make it much more manageable. And while some articles on drug resistance don’t mention it, Davies does: animal agriculture.

Over two-thirds of all antimicrobials sold globally wind up in farm animals—73 percent, by some estimates. The meat industry has historically fed animals antibiotics not just to treat illness but to make them grow faster so it can kill and sell them faster. While the Food and Drug Administration stopped allowing that in the United States as of 2017, industrial meat, dairy, poultry, egg, and aquaculture operations still use a lot of antibiotics because of the extreme density in which these animals are raised. Also, antibiotics aren’t always administered at an individual level in response to illness but can be given as a preventative measure, or to an entire group.

The U.S. remains way up in the charts in farm animal antibiotic use—third worldwide, after China and Brazil. While China now seems to be reducing antimicrobial use in farming, analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council and One Health Trust found a troubling trend in the U.S.: If you look at the total amount of antibiotics by weight, while human medicine reduced its use of “medically important antibiotics” from 2017 to 2020, livestock farming used more. After that sharp drop around 2017, livestock production’s share of antibiotic use again crept upward, from about 62 percent of antibiotics sold in 2017 to 69 percent in 2020.

Overuse of drugs in livestock production can affect humans in several ways. Eighty percent of the antibiotics given to animals, Davies told The Guardian, then gets excreted in their waste, meaning antibiotics can pass into the environment, increasing selective pressures that contribute to antibiotic resistance. Drug residue can also persist in animal products that consumers then ingest. (Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a sampling and testing system to prevent the sale of meat with drug residue, with thresholds or “tolerance levels” set by the FDA, that does not mean there is no residue.) Drug-resistant bacteria that develop in animals deluged with antibiotics can contaminate improperly handled meat or pass via animal feces to plant crops.

There are ways to fix American farming’s drug addiction. We know that because the intensity of antibiotic use on farms in Europe is about half that in the United States.

The U.S. could catch up by instituting regulations that encourage or mandate better hygiene and general living conditions and more nondrug preventative care. This would have multiple benefits for human health: As TNR contributor Melody Schreiber recently reported, animal farming—not wild birds, as some narratives suggest—has been the primary driver of bird flu. “Once bird flu gets into a large-scale poultry or, now, a dairy operation, it can spread quickly in cramped confines, and then spread to other farms before spilling back into wild birds and animals.”

Another way to cut antibiotic use worldwide would be to eat less meat. One estimate suggests reducing global meat consumption to the equivalent of one standard fast-food burger per person per day—average U.S. consumption is currently over six times that—would slash the global use of antimicrobials for food animals by 66 percent. This would have the salutary effect of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, waterway contamination, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and more.

While the long-delayed farm bill is back in headlines this week, so far most of the focus is on tracking foreign land purchases, cannabis, and GOP efforts to avoid the words “climate change.” Instead of state-level regulations improving how poultry, hogs, and cattle are raised, Florida and Alabama have opted to ban lab-cultivated meat—which isn’t for sale anyway. And nothing gets culture warriors worked up faster than the slightest hint of a suggestion that people eat less meat—or any regulation that might make it marginally more expensive.

Then again, maybe they’d feel differently after a few public awareness campaigns. One poll in 2019 found that while the vast majority of the American public has heard about antibiotic resistance, their understanding of what antibiotic resistance could mean for their own lives is patchier. And while 59 percent say pharmaceutical companies are “very responsible” for the problem, only 20 percent would say the same of the agricultural industry.

Antibiotic resistance isn’t solely an agricultural problem, of course. Davies—who lost her goddaughter to a multidrug-resistant bacterial infection—also noted the necessity of developing new drugs, international coordination, and reducing the release of antibiotics into the environment during manufacturing.

But we can hold these two truths in our minds simultaneously: Any serious effort to slow the rise of drug-resistant pathogens is going to have to address multiple issues. Any effort that ignores the industry in which two-thirds of the drugs are being used isn’t serious.

Good News/Bad News

A landmark bill to make fossil fuel companies cover some of the costs of repairing and adapting to the damage of climate change passed its final vote in the Vermont Senate this past week. If Governor Phil Scott vetoes, the General Assembly will reconvene in June for an override, according to the Bennington Banner. (Vermonters supported the policy by a 2-to-1 margin even before last year’s catastrophic floods.) When the bill becomes law, it will surely be challenged in court. Whatever happens, this is a story to watch.

Mere days after a report revealed that former President Donald Trump promised a roomful of oil execs that he would reverse loads of regulations in exchange for $1 billion in campaign funds, the Republican hopeful pledged to issue an executive order halting all offshore wind development “on day one,” if elected.

Stat of the Week
2,000 years

Tree rings indicate that last summer was the hottest Northern Hemisphere summer in two millennia, a new study says.

What I’m Reading

Bishop vanished. His species can still be saved.

While former President Donald Trump has joined a growing chorus of conservatives groundlessly blaming wind farms for whale deaths, the clear culprit in a recent string of endangered right whale deaths is vessel strikes. The Washington Post uses the disappearance and likely death of a 1-year-old right whale named Bishop to examine how this happens, laying out how delayed fishing reforms and proposals to expand low-speed zones along the coast could help save the species.

So far this year, a dead female turned up off Virginia with a dislocated spine, a calf was discovered in Georgia with head lacerations, and a young female was found—again in Georgia—with a fractured skull. All the injuries are consistent with vessel strikes.… In addition to vessel strikes, right whales are also threatened by entanglement in fishing gear stretched deep into the sea to trap lobsters and crabs. Bishop’s family tree underscores the danger.

Bishop’s mother, Insignia, endured four entanglements over the course of her life. She was last sighted in 2015 and is presumed dead. She was the mother of four known calves.… Bishop’s great-grandmother Wart was the matriarch of a family of 31 known whales and counting. Her prodigious family tree highlights how the untimely death of just one female can reduce the species’ future population. Here is Wart in the Gulf of Maine in 2010, with fishing line going through her mouth and over her head. She was last sighted in 2014 and is presumed dead.

Read Harry Stevens and Dino Grandoni’s report at The Washington Post.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

The Really Grim Part About Gas Stoves

Lower-income people living in smaller spaces are especially affected by the toxic gases these ranges leak.

This image shows two lit burners on a gas stove.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Industry marketing campaigns have long conditioned Americans to believe that gas stoves are the height of bourgeois suburban sophistication and the discerning choice of the home chef—Anthony Bourdain meets Instagram trad wife, if you will. What they don’t tell us is that gas stoves poison us—particularly the poorer among us.

Researchers have known for a long time that the nitrogen dioxide released by gas stoves contributes to childhood asthma and other respiratory ailments, and have recently been examining the risk from benzene as well. But a new study clarifies that this is especially bad for people living in smaller spaces. Those in residences under 800 square feet, the researchers found, experience over four times the long-term nitrogen dioxide exposure from gas stoves that those in residences of over 3,000 square feet do. This also means, researchers note, that largely due to differences in average residence size, American Indian and Alaska Native households, Latino households, and Black households with gas stoves tend to have higher than average levels of nitrogen dioxide exposure.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Research on the dangers of gas stoves goes back to the 1980s. And as TNR columnist Liza Featherstone argued last year, pro-gas politicians’ insistence on portraying these stoves as a consumer choice issue has always been a red herring. Many people can’t afford to replace their gas stoves. Often, it’s not even up to them: They’re renting. In a pilot study that replaced public housing residents’ gas stoves with induction ones, Liza wrote, “households using induction stoves had a 35 percent reduction in daily nitrogen dioxide compared to … households using gas stoves, and the decrease in carbon monoxide was even more dramatic. The participants, several of whom suffered from asthma, noted that since the departure of their gas stoves, their symptoms had disappeared.” And not a single person asked for their gas stove back.

This was not a double-blind randomized controlled trial. But then again, neither are the paeans to gas ranges that the industry has flooded us with for the past hundred years. While over a century of industry marketing in this country has sought to portray gas stoves as a domestic status symbol and the ultimate chef’s tool, many professional chefs now admit that induction is just as good, and maybe better: faster, safer (less opportunity for sleeves to catch fire, totally apart from the asthma and cancer thing), and a pleasanter cooking experience, because it keeps the kitchen cooler.

As investigative outlet DeSmog reported this week, a social media campaign from the nonprofit Gas Leaks Project is now seeking to counter industry messaging, spreading awareness about the substances gas stoves leak even when not in use, and pointing people to “a petition urging the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to put health warning labels on all gas stoves.” California and Illinois are already considering legislation requiring a warning label on the appliances.

Even if these policies get enacted, they probably won’t be very effective. When I asked John Banzhaf, a law professor famous for his work against cigarette companies, about legal and policy approaches to the dangers posed by gas stoves back in 2022, he noted that package warnings are one of the less useful options, “because by the time you’ve bought it you’re not going to send it back ’cause you saw this little note.” Requiring a notice on all “advertising and promotion” would be better— it’s “what we do with smoking,” he added. But it tends to get challenged in court on First Amendment grounds. Labeling also won’t help with the issue of people being unable to replace their stoves. (As I wrote last year, getting a landlord to replace a gas range is hard.)

Then again, it’s better than nothing. As House Republicans consider a slate of bills this week to keep Americans’ energy bills high in the name of consumer choice—the “Hands Off Our Home Appliances,” or “HOOHA,” Act—it may be worth reminding people that this is not actually a political game. It’s an urgent public health problem. Countless Americans are being poisoned every day by their stoves. The only question is whether we’re going to do anything about it.

Good News/Bad News

Inside Climate News has a fascinating report on one of a few possible technologies for long-term energy storage—a crucial complement to wind and solar. This one involves compressed air.

A new survey of hundreds of top climate scientists finds that they expect the world to warm by at least 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) this century, “blasting past internationally agreed targets and causing catastrophic consequences for humanity and the planet,” The Guardian reports. Meanwhile, the death toll in Brazil is still rising after extreme rainfall caused catastrophic flooding in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. “The extreme weather has been caused by a rare combination of hotter than average temperatures, high humidity and strong winds,” reports the BBC.

Stat of the Week

That’s the potential increase in habitat for the West African gaboon viper, according to a new study about how climate change will shift the geography of venomous snakes, reported by The Guardian. That means, the researchers note, that historical habitat may not be the best guide for figuring out which establishments should stock various antivenoms.

What I’m Reading

Orangutan, Heal Thyself

An orangutan in Sumatra has been observed chewing up medicinal leaves and putting them on his facial wound—further evidence that humans are not the only species to self-medicate:

“Once I heard about it, I got extremely excited,” said Isabelle Laumer, a primatologist with the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Germany, in part because records of animals medicating themselves are rare—even more so when it comes to treating injuries. She and colleagues detailed the discovery in a study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.

The plant Rakus used, known as akar kuning or yellow root, is also used by people throughout Southeast Asia to treat malaria, diabetes and other conditions. Research shows it has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.

Read Douglas Main’s report at The New York Times.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

Companies Legally Use Poison to Make Your Decaf Coffee

And they are fighting every effort to ban it.

A cup of coffee with a heart design in foam
Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Do you drink decaffeinated coffee? Are you aware that it’s often made by applying a chemical so dangerous it was banned for use in paint stripper five years ago? And are you aware that companies think banning this chemical is really, really unfair?

This week the Environmental Protection Agency finalized a rule prohibiting all but “critical” uses of methylene chloride, a highly toxic liquid that is believed to have killed at least 88 people since 1980—mostly workers refinishing bathtubs or doing other home renovations. Methylene chloride can cause liver damage and is linked to multiple cancers, among other health effects. Amazingly, while the EPA banned its sale for paint stripping in 2019 for this reason, it continues to be used for a lot of other purposes. And one of those is decaffeinating coffee, because the Food and Drug Administration decided in the 1980s that the risk to coffee drinkers was low given how the coffee was processed.

The EPA’s ban on noncritical use of methylene chloride is one of many rules the Biden administration has announced or finalized ahead of the Congressional Review Act deadline. (The CRA, essentially, makes it easier for an unfriendly Congress to nix any administrative regulations finalized in the last 60 days of a legislative session.) A lot of the recently announced rules ban or curtail toxic substances that have made their way into everyday life and are poisoning people. The EPA has limited long-lasting chemicals called PFAS in drinking water, requiring water utilities within five years to build treatment systems that remove it. The agency has categorized two types of PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund law, requiring manufacturers to monitor whether they’ve been released into the environment and, if so, clean them up. It has also—finally—fully banned asbestos. It’s finalized a rule to further restrict fine particulate pollution in the air, which has been linked to heart disease, heart attacks, asthma, low birth weight, Alzheimer’s, and other forms of dementia. It’s in the process of finalizing a rule reducing lead in drinking water, which would require the replacement of lead pipes throughout the nation.

Banning poison is good politics. As mentioned in last week’s newsletter, while only 47 percent of respondents in a recent CBS News poll supported reentering the Paris climate agreement, 70 percent said they supported reducing toxic chemicals in drinking water. That’s consistent with other polls showing that a majority of people think the federal government is doing too little to protect “lakes, rivers and streams,” and that an overwhelming majority of people—even 68 percent of Republicans—believe the federal government should play some role in “addressing differences across communities in their health risks from pollution and other environmental problems.”

But every single time one of these rules is announced, companies and industry groups respond with the most ridiculous statements. Let’s look at just a few recent examples.

“A group of coffee makers against banning methylene chloride,” Boston radio station WBUR reported in early April, “recently wrote the FDA saying, ‘True coffee aficionados in blind tastings’ prefer coffee decaffeinated with the chemical.” Who knows how this study was done—“True coffee aficionados” are not known for preferring decaf, period, hence a recent P.R. push to improve decaf’s image. Nick Florko, a reporter for health news website Stat, told WBUR that the coffee makers’ letter to the FDA was a “pretty funny claim if you consider the fact that we’re talking about coffee here that’s essentially rinsed in paint thinner.” And this says nothing at all about what happens to workers involved in the decaffeination process. (Methylene chloride has previously been shown to poison even trained workers wearing protective gear.)

National Coffee Association president William Murray said something even weirder, telling CNN via email that banning methylene chloride “would defy science and harm American[s’] health.” His logic appeared to be that since all coffee consumption, including decaf, shows signs of reducing cancer risk overall, it’s not really a problem to decaffeinate coffee using a known carcinogen. That’s loopy even for industry pushback. For one thing, it’s easy to imagine that coffee could be good in general, and less good if you add poison to it. For another, coffee can also be decaffeinated without methylene chloride, using only water.

Now let’s look at PFAS pushback. Knowing the EPA rules were in progress, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in March launched the “Essential Chemistry for America” initiative, with the goal of “protecting ‘forever chemicals’ it deems ‘critical,’” according to E&E News. “We’re increasingly concerned that overly broad regulatory approaches threaten access to modern fluorochemistries, so we’re taking action to ensure their availability,” chamber vice president Marty Durbin said. Given that “access” language is typically used in a social and environmental justice context, restyling the regulation of poisons as threatening “access to modern fluorochemistries” is gutsy, to say the least.

The private water industry is meanwhile throwing a fit about being asked to filter out PFAS. The rule will “throw public confidence in drinking water into chaos,” Mike McGill, president of water industry communications firm WaterPIO, told the AP. (You’d think the existence of PFAS in the water is what would tank public confidence, not the requirement that it be removed.) Then there’s the common threat from private water utilities—which, remember, turn a profit off providing a substance people can’t live without—that removing PFAS will increase people’s water bills. Robert Powelson, the head of the National Association of Water Companies, said that the costs of the federal regulation “will disproportionately fall on water and wastewater customers,” according to The Washington Post. “Water utilities do not create or produce PFAS chemicals,” Powelson added. “Yet water systems and their customers are on the front lines of paying for the cleanup of this contamination.”

It’s true enough that water utilities are not the ones creating PFAS chemicals. On the other hand, there are lots of water contaminants that water utilities are responsible for filtering out if they want to keep making money from providing people with drinking water. Is there really any reason PFAS shouldn’t be among them?

Saying that the cost of this regulation “will disproportionately fall on water and wastewater customers” shouldn’t be read as an expression of sympathy for disadvantaged households. The burden will fall on customers because the utilities will make sure of it. It’s a threat, and one that doesn’t mention the federal money from the Inflation Reduction Act that is being made available to help shoulder that burden. Those funds may well fall short, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re paying for-profit entities to transition to removing something they ought to have been filtering out long ago. And even if this federal rule hadn’t been made, companies would probably have to start removing PFAS anyway, because they are facing increasingly expensive lawsuits over not doing so. (The water utilities, in turn, are suing polluters to cover remediation costs—another source of funding.)

It’s worth emphasizing what PFAS chemicals actually do to people, particularly in light of the American Water Works Association’s assertion to the AP that the cost of removing the chemicals “can’t be justified for communities with low levels of PFAS.” Researchers are now pretty sure that PFAS exposure increases the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Studying people in northern Italy who drank PFAS-contaminated water, researchers also saw increased rates of kidney and testicular cancer. The Guardian report on this contained this disturbing finding too: Women with multiple children had lower levels of PFAS only because pregnancy transferred PFAS into their children’s bodies instead.

Don’t let that get in the way of a good comms statement from industry groups, though. Remember: Forcing companies even to report their PFAS pollution, or remove PFAS from the water, is unfair.

Good News/Bad News

Twenty-nine-year-old Andrea Vidaurre has won the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work in environmental justice, pushing California to adopt new standards for truck and rail emissions that will curtail the air pollution harming working-class Latino communities in California’s Inland Empire.

The United States has sided with petrostates in opposing production controls on plastic at the negotiations in Ottawa for a U.N. treaty to reduce plastic pollution. (Two weeks ago, I wrote about these negotiations, noting that the number of plastics industry lobbyists attending this session was not yet known. Now it is: 196 lobbyists from the fossil fuel and chemical industries registered for this round, according to the Center for International Environmental Law—a 37 percent increase from the number at the last session.)

Stat of the Week

That’s the percentage of the 250 most popular fictional films released between 2013 and 2022 in which climate change exists and a character depicted on screen knows it, according to a new “Climate Reality Check” analysis from Colby University and Good Energy. Read Sammy Roth’s newsletter about why climate change in movies is so important here.

What I’m Reading

Big Oil privately acknowledged efforts to downplay climate crisis, joint committee investigation finds

Congressional Democrats this week released a report confirming what news outlets have previously reported: Companies like Exxon knew about climate change very early on and covered it up. They also found in subpoenaed emails that Exxon tried to discredit reporting of its duplicity, while privately acknowledging that it was true:

The new revelations build on 2015 reporting from Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times, which found that Exxon was for decades aware of the dangers of the climate crisis, yet hid that from the public.

At the time, Exxon publicly rejected the journalists’ findings outright, calling them “inaccurate and deliberately misleading.” … But in internal communications, Exxon confirmed the validity of the reporting. In a December 2015 email about a potential public response to the investigative reporting, Exxon communications advisor Pamela Kevelson admitted the company did not “dispute much of what these stories report.” … “It’s true that Inside Climate News originally accused us of working against science but ultimately modified their accusation to working against policies meant to stop climate change,” Alan Jeffers, then a spokesperson for Exxon, wrote in a 2016 email to Kevelson. “I’m OK either way, since they were both true at one time or another.”

Read Dharna Noor’s report in The Guardian.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

The Wrong Question to Ask About Climate Change

Saying people support “steps” to address climate change is meaningless unless we specify what those steps are.

An aerial photo shows trees growing in a wetland in a manmade pattern.
VCG/Getty Images
A man-made metasequoia forest at Sihong Hongze Lake Wetland Scenic Area in China

Remember when people weren’t even sure climate change was real?

According to a new CBS News poll, 70 percent of Americans support the “U.S. taking steps to reduce climate change.” That’s a big number—so big, in fact, that you’d think political action would be guaranteed, and that we’d be well on our way to halting global warming altogether.

Then how come Congress isn’t passing bills to do that right now? There are a lot of possible answers. That 70 percent finding doesn’t say anything about where climate action lies on respondents’ priorities list. It doesn’t shed light on what sort of actions and policies respondents would support. And perhaps most fundamentally, it doesn’t even define what climate change is.

This last part is particularly important, because it’s the only way to make sense of the CBS poll against others in the past year. Last August, Pew Research Center reported that only 46 percent of Americans believe the “Earth’s temperature is getting warmer mostly due to human activity.” Another 26 percent said it was “mostly due to natural patterns,” with “not sure” and “no solid evidence” receiving 14 percent each. That paints a very different picture of political support for climate policy, because if you think global warming is mostly due to natural patterns, you’re probably not going to support immediate curtailment of fossil fuels.

Pew also asked about prioritization. Only 37 percent said that “the president and Congress dealing with climate change should be a top priority.” Another 34 percent said it should “be an important but lower priority”—which roughly adds up to that 70 percent support for climate action in CBS’s poll.

So why isn’t Congress putting the finishing touches on energy efficiency legislation as you read this? Instead, House Republicans seem inclined to declare war on home appliances that use too little energy.

Much like “do you believe in climate change?” before it, “do you support steps to reduce climate change?” or “do you think addressing climate change should be a priority?” may today be questions that have outlived their usefulness, obscuring more than they inform. Without identifying what those steps are, the questions are nearly meaningless. For while there are many policies that could be construed as “addressing climate change,” those that don’t actually result in reduced emissions don’t fix the fundamental problem.

This conundrum is on full display in the conflicting assessments of the U.S.’s biggest climate legislation yet: the Inflation Reduction Act. By many measures, the IRA has been a smashing success, its tax incentives stimulating green investment all over the nation. Yet the law was tremendously difficult to pass, and probably only did so because the final text didn’t include any policies directly reducing, say, the combustion of fossil fuels. Oil and gas production has actually gone up dramatically since then. As TNR’s Kate Aronoff put it:

As a piece of green industrial policy, the principal aim of the IRA is to foster the development of strategic economic sectors so as to make the U.S. economy more competitive. Any emissions reductions it generates en route to that goal are largely incidental… businesses that take advantage of [the tax incentives]—including fossil fuel companies—are largely free to simply add lower-carbon lines of business onto their core, polluting business models.

You can see a similar problem in some “bipartisan” climate solutions being proposed, like one Time magazine published earlier this week for Earth Day: planting trees. It’s not that planting trees is bad. It’s often very good! But “planting a trillion trees,” as former Speaker Kevin McCarthy proposed last year, would only prevent 0.15 degrees Celsius of warming while requiring 900 million hectares of land (land that may already be already storing carbon and supporting diversity in the form of prairies and wetlands, or that may be needed to produce food or renewable energy). And planting trees doesn’t actually transition the economy to more sustainable forms of energy. So it starts to look like a political sleight of hand to avoid the real need: reducing fossil fuel consumption and production (which McCarthy absolutely does not support).

While the CBS report didn’t mention it, its poll did ask people about specific policies: While 63 percent said they supported the Biden administration’s rebates and tax credits for energy efficiency, and 70 percent supported the reduction of toxic chemicals in drinking water, only 47 percent said they supported the administration reentering the U.S. into the Paris Climate Agreement, and 49 percent supported “spending on projects to reduce climate change.” Tellingly, only 14 percent of respondents overall said they’d heard “a lot” about these policies, while 28 percent said “not much” and 22 percent said “nothing at all.”

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe has famously argued over the past decade that “the most important thing you can do to fight climate change” is to “talk about it,” which spreads awareness and may build political will for addressing it. But as awareness of climate change spreads, perhaps it’s time to tweak that prescription. The most important thing you can do to fight climate change may be to talk, specifically, about what policies and steps you support.

Good News/Bad News

Tribal leaders are celebrating the release of juvenile salmon by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife into the Klamath River, following dam removals that are expected to increase the salmon’s chances of survival and spawning.

Three offshore wind projects in New York have been canceled, one of a string of developments complicating the state’s progress toward 70 percent renewable energy by 2030. Read TNR’s coverage of this goal here and here, and coverage about the challenges facing offshore wind here.

Stat of the Week
1,700 coal plants

That’s how many coal plants it would take to equal the emissions produced by plastic production if industry growth continues on its current trajectory, according to a new report covered by The Guardian. Read more of TNR’s coverage of the plastics industry here and the UN negotiations for a plastics treaty here.

What I’m Reading

As the climate changes, cities will scramble to find trees that will survive

Trees are struggling to keep up with the warming world, Laura Hautala writes. Varieties that used to do well in certain areas aren’t doing well anymore, and that challenge will only increase with time. That may seem like a problem for forest conservationists, but it also presents a challenge for cities:

Urban arborists say planting for the future is urgently needed and could prevent a decline in leafy cover just when the world needs it most. Trees play a crucial role in keeping cities cool. A study published in 2022 found that a roughly 30 percent increase in the metropolitan canopy could prevent nearly 40 percent of heat-related deaths in Europe. The need is particularly acute in marginalized communities, where residents—often people of color—live among treeless expanses where temperatures can go much higher than in more affluent neighborhoods.… Urban botanists and other experts warn that cities are well behind where they should be to avoid overall tree loss. The full impact of climate change may be decades away, but oaks, maples, and other popular species can take 10 or more years to mature (and show they can tolerate a new climate), making the search for the right varieties for each region a frantic race against time.

Grist | Lauren Hautala

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

The U.N. Is Running Out of Time to Draft This Plastics Treaty

Meanwhile, it has yet to ban plastics industry lobbyists from the talks.

A cow stands in a field of discarded plastic.
Chaideer Mahyuddin/Getty Images
A cow forages amid plastic garbage in Indonesia’s Lhoknga, Aceh province.

In March 2022, U.N. delegates met in Ottawa and struck a historic agreement to produce, by the end of 2024, a legally binding treaty to “end plastic pollution.” “Plastic pollution has grown into an epidemic. With today’s resolution we are officially on track for a cure,” Espen Barth Eide, then Norway’s minister for climate and the environment, said at the time. Now, more than two years later, the mission looks dangerously close to derailing.

Next week, when delegates reconvene in Ottawa, it will be their penultimate chance to achieve their stated goal (the final meeting is in November). “This meeting is, to a degree, make or break,” the International Pollutants Elimination Network’s Björn Beeler told Inside Climate News.

Given the proliferation of plastics alternatives these days, you might think this treaty would be in the shrimp shell–derived sustainable bag, so to speak. Nope. A meeting in Nairobi in November 2023 ended with very little progress. Perhaps relatedly, as this newsletter noted at the time, the Center for International and Environmental Law tallied 143 fossil fuel and petrochemical industry lobbyists registered to attend that meeting. It’s not known yet how many have registered to attend next week’s.

Since last November, several new reports have shed further light on the deception of the plastics industry. In February, the Center for Climate Integrity released a report on what it called a “decades-long campaign of fraud and deception about the recyclability of plastics,” as newly uncovered documents from trade group the Vinyl Institute explicitly acknowledged in the 1980s that “recycling cannot go on indefinitely, and does not solve the solid waste problem.”

Last month, the Environmental Integrity Project announced another finding: that some $9 billion in U.S. taxpayer money has been used, via tax breaks and subsidies, to build plastics manufacturing facilities. Many of those facilities, in turn, have “repeatedly exceeded legal limits on the air pollution they release into surrounding communities, disproportionately affecting people of color,” DeSmog’s Sara Sneath wrote. Volatile organic compounds of the sort released by these plants have been “tied to a broad range of potential health impacts, from nosebleeds to cancer.”

These two reports aren’t the first and won’t be the last to showcase the plastics industry’s bad faith or the catastrophic consequences of public credulity. But taken together, they’re a striking indictment of the position that reportedly tanked the talks in Nairobi in November. The basic problem then was that countries with big petrochemical industries, like the United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China, opposed the idea of “binding provisions” for reducing plastic production, and in some cases explicitly advocated focusing on recycling instead.

In light of these two reports, at least two things may be said about this position. First: Given that the plastics industry has admitted internally for decades that recycling doesn’t work, a recycling-first approach to plastic pollution is basically a pro-pollution stance. And second: While countries may value the wealth produced by their large fossil fuel industries, they also have ample evidence that these industries will not hesitate to take taxpayer money and, in return, poison taxpayers.

Meanwhile, the political systems for addressing this problem are deeply dysfunctional. It’s not uncommon, in U.N. climate talks, for oil industry execs to actually be part of official governmental delegations for some countries. And in the U.S., even if a useful treaty does get drafted this year, a Trump victory in November “would likely impact how such an agreement gets implemented in the U.S. and ratchet up the already long odds that any final accord would be approved by the U.S. Senate,” E&E News reports.

Still, kicking straight-up lobbyists out of the talks shouldn’t be too much to ask. U.N. member nations are well overdue in acknowledging what many credible news outlets have now reported, and what ought to be common sense: that plastics industry representatives are not disinterested parties here. Any sincere attempt to curb the global disaster of plastic pollution isn’t going to come from them.

Good News/Bad News

As experts warn about plummeting biodiversity and California bans salmon fishing for a second year due to dwindling populations, The Guardian reports one small, potentially positive development in Europe: Around 500 barriers (think dams, fords, etc.) were removed from European waterways last year, helping to restore riparian ecosystems and allowing fish to travel upstream to breed.

Researchers are expecting “the most spatially extensive global bleaching event on record” for the world’s coral, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration coal expert Derek Manzello tells The New York Times.

Stat of the Week

$150,000 per lease

That’s the new price for drilling on federal lands, up from $10,000. The rule was finalized by the Bureau of Land Management on Friday, part of a big push to finalize environmental rules before President Biden’s term runs out.

What I’m Reading

How Fast Fashion Is Driving Land Grabs and Violence in Brazil

While brands like H&M promote their cotton clothes as particularly sustainable, courtesy of the Better Cotton Initiative, environmental nonprofit Earthsight has cast doubt on that, Sophie Benson reports for Atmos. Earthsight examined two major cotton producers who export to manufacturers that make clothes for H&M and Zara:

SLC and Horita Group stand accused of deforestation on a grand scale.

In 2014, Bahia’s environmental agency Ibama found 25,153 hectares of illegal deforestation on Horita farms at Agronegócio Condomínio Cachoeira do Estrondo, a vast agribusiness estate, the report outlines. In 2020, the same agency stated it could find no permits for 11,700 hectares of deforestation carried out by the company between 2010 and 2018. Between 2002 and 2019, Horita Group’s owners were fined over 20 times for environmental violations, totalling $4.5 million.

Meanwhile, three of SLC’s cotton farms lost at least 40,000 hectares of native Cerrado wilderness in the last 12 years, per Earthsight’s reporting. SLC has also been fined around $250,000 by Ibama since 2008 for environmental infractions in Bahia. Both companies are further alleged to have cleared land which has been legally earmarked for regeneration or preservation.

Read Sophie Benson’s full report at Atmos.Earth.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

Fish Are Behaving Erratically and Dying. No One Knows Why.

Endangered smalltooth sawfish are one of many species that have been seen spinning around and beaching themselves off the Florida Keys.

A smalltooth sawfish
Houston Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers/Getty Images
A sawfish in an aquarium

Something strange is happening in the waters off the Florida Keys. For months now, thousand-pound fish with three-foot serrated beaks have been spinning around in seeming distress, beaching themselves, and dying. The news largely escaped national attention until the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last week that it would be coordinating an “emergency response effort” to rescue these fish, prompting a string of pieces in major outlets.

It’s not a story that gets less disturbing or strange the more you learn about it. Quite the opposite.

NOAA is mobilizing because the fish in question, the smalltooth sawfish, is an endangered species—one of only five sawfish species in the world, all of which are threatened. “It’s a big ray with a big crazy hedge trimmer on the edge of its head,” says Florida State University marine biologist Dean Grubbs, who’s been on NOAA’s Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery and Implementation Team since 2009. The fish, “which are close to bull sharks in terms of where they are on the food chain,” Grubbs added, have been hit hard by commercial fishing bycatch, trophy hunting, and habitat loss—particularly of the mangroves where young sawfish hide from predators while they grow. They’ve been protected in Florida since 1992 and listed under the Endangered Species Act since 2003. “We were sort of celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the listing,” Grubbs said, because “we were actually seeing some positive signs of recovery”—until this happened.

But sawfish aren’t the only ones behaving strangely. “There have been I think over 40 species of fishes that have been seen doing this weird spinning behavior,” Grubbs said, and it started months ago, as early as November of last year. People simply started noticing it more when they saw the sawfish with their giant rostrums—that’s the big serrated beak-like apparatus—in the shallow water starting in January. “Most residents of the Florida Keys have never seen a sawfish, and that’s why it caught everybody’s eye.”

Fish losing their minds en masse is alarming, although it seems confined to the Keys. “The theory is that it’s something that seems neurotoxicological,” Grubbs said, but the routine water testing isn’t showing anything suspicious. The head of Mote Marine Laboratory, involved in the response, told CBS News, “This seems to be some kind of an agent that is in the water that is negatively impacting just the fish species.”

While many fish may die while awaiting an answer, the sawtooth population is particularly vulnerable. Given that genetic analysis of the smalltooth sawfish population estimates that there could be only around 400 breeding females left, Grubbs said, this sort of unexplained phenomenon is pretty worrisome. Nearly 30 adult sawfish have been confirmed dead, with possibly many more whose carcasses simply haven’t been found, and over 100 live sawfish have been observed exhibiting this odd spinning behavior. That’s a sizable portion of the total population, which doesn’t have a great capacity to bounce back. Researchers think it may take sawfish a decade or more to reach sexual maturity.

The plan to buy the sawtooths time while researchers figure out what’s going on is pretty wild: to capture live sawtooths, take them out of the ocean (so they can’t beach themselves or get any sicker if the problem is being caused by the water), and quarantine them until they recover and researchers have answers. This is not a minor task when talking about an animal 10 to 15 feet long that weighs about as much as a horse and needs to remain submerged. NOAA’s statement last Wednesday listed Ripley’s Aquariums, the research nonprofit Mote Marine Laboratory, and aquarium and pet store supplier Dynasty Marine Associates as three locations where sawfish might be taken for quarantine. To make this work, NOAA also has to find “transport routes,” Grubbs noted. Meanwhile, the testing will continue—of water, of samples from dead sawtooths and other fish, and of samples from healthy fish, which Grubbs and his team helped provide from a recent research trip.

These sorts of mass mortality events, as Marion Renault wrote for TNR last year, are becoming more common. “We’re nowhere close to grasping the repercussions these cascades of death have on ecosystems,” Marion wrote. “One catastrophe makes it more likely that you’ll suffer a second or third,” one zoologist told her. “And every devastation,” Marion wrote, “leaves an ecosystem more vulnerable for the next.”

The mystery of the spinning fish is strange enough, hopefully, to seize the nation’s attention. But it’s just one part of a larger onslaught on Florida’s coastal ecosystems, degraded by runoff and sewage, toxic algal blooms, and soaring temperatures that reduce the amount of oxygen in the water. Those studying sawfish may be particularly anxious, unsure whether the population can rebound. But, said Grubbs, “I think it’s a big environmental concern for all of us.”

Good News/Bad News

There are a growing number of alternatives to plastic when it comes to food packaging, The New York Times reports. But current systems for distributing food, and patterns people have when it comes to buying and consuming food, aren’t going to make eliminating plastic easy.

Landfills are emitting way more methane than previously thought.

Stat of the Week


That’s the increase in incidence of dengue fever in Puerto Rico so far this year compared to this time last year. Read Zoya Teirstein’s report at Grist about the disease’s alarming spread.

What I’m Reading

HOAs are blocking solar panels and native lawns. Here’s how to fight back.

This column from The Washington Post’s “climate coach” tells the story of two people—a software engineer near D.C. and a climate journalist in Lockhart, Texas—who have defied homeowners associations to transform their front lawns into a vegetable garden and a miniature prairie landscape, respectively. It also contains advice for those who want to follow in their footsteps.

Power is shifting back into the hands of property owners after state legislators have begun rolling back decades of escalating HOA restrictions. But many members of HOA boards don’t know these provisions, or ignore them.

“Unfortunately, it sounds cliché, but there are association board members who are on a power trip,” says Luke Carlson, an attorney and founder of LS Carlson Law specializing in HOA disputes. “They will not listen to reason until you notify someone in their camp that what is happening is wrong, and it’s violating the owners’ rights and well-established law. But it takes a little bit of fight to get some traction.”

Read Michael J. Coren’s column at The Washington Post.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

How to Avoid Food System Collapse

If Atlantic Ocean currents break down, the Northern Hemisphere could face crop failures. So why isn’t there a plan for that?

A truck drives past a field of wheat.
Ken Cedeno/Corbis/Getty Images
A wheat field in North Dakota

Spring is here, and seeds are in the ground. But what if, a year from now, all the weather patterns our food system takes for granted were suddenly different? Not just the worsening summers, droughts, and floods of climate change but something faster and more dramatic, and much harder to adapt to?

Last month, researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands published a disturbing paper suggesting this might actually happen. Scientists have previously speculated that melting ice sheets dumping vast quantities of freshwater into the ocean could change the currents of the Atlantic Ocean. The new modeling suggested, though, that complete collapse of the Atlantic Ocean’s current system is no longer “theoretical” and could occur much faster and more completely than anticipated. Europe would abruptly get much colder, seasons could fully flip in the Amazon rainforest, and many other places could see big changes in weather patterns.

Can our food systems survive this kind of shock? Food systems are dizzyingly complex, encompassing crops grown in fields and greenhouses, meat and dairy animals elsewhere that consume some of those field crops, wild and farmed fisheries, refrigerated supply chains transporting plant and animal products to processing sites or warehouses, the grocery and restaurant industries, and international trade. When I asked experts about how U.S. food supply might be affected by weather shifts like the one outlined in the new paper, their responses weren’t reassuring. In essence: Both domestic and international food systems are quite vulnerable. But figuring out how vulnerable is hard. Not only is the United States failing to make its food system more resilient, it’s not even gathering enough data to know how to make the food system more resilient.

“We’ve done surprisingly little preparing for these kinds of shocks,” said Roni Neff, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and Center for a Livable Future. When Neff and her colleagues surveyed local governments on food system resilience, “the people that responded were those that were already thinking about this, and of those that responded only 10 percent considered their local jurisdiction to be prepared.”

Nor can local governments rely on the feds. The concern with a large-scale shock is that it could trigger what researchers call “multiple bread basket failures,” according to Michael Puma, director of the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University. “As far as I know there is no very clear governmental strategy—at least that’s unclassified—that clarifies how the U.S. would deal with a major disruption in production.”

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture does have grants and loans for building a more resilient food system, that’s far from being a comprehensive plan for responding to giant climate shocks. “Some of us in academia have been trying to push the governmental agencies to take notice of this,” Puma said, “with little success to date.” Because food system resilience in response to crisis involves a mix of domestic agriculture, international trade, disaster response, and more, there’s no one agency that would be able to address this. “In the 1970s the U.S. government had prepared a report on potential strategies for managing U.S. food reserves, and this was in response to the Soviet grain crisis,” Puma added. “But then it was somewhat abandoned and ignored and not really used moving forward.”

A comprehensive strategy would have to start with good data. “We know what to do in general” when it comes to food system resilience, Neff said, but “there’s really quite scant research on confirming what works and what to prioritize.” Changing that would involve a combination of funding and coordination. “We haven’t seen a major amount of funding available for this type of question and specifically to develop policies or new institutional responses to this type of threat,” said Puma.

“When we’ve been trying to do various projects with modeling, like where is the food, who’s got it, how much food is in the Baltimore area right now if all the roads got cut off,” Neff said, “we don’t know, because a lot of it is in various individual businesses and storehouses and they’re each keeping their own data.” (One such study of New York City in 2016 estimated “the New York City food system holds roughly 4 to 5 days of regular consumption of food stock on average”—not an encouraging figure if one were to imagine incoming supply chains being disrupted.)

Even without better data, though, it’s possible to identify specific vulnerabilities in the U.S. food system and changes that should probably be made. The high efficiency of the current food system has often come at the cost of redundancy—meaning backup plans. “We need to have more diverse places where food is coming from; we need multiple routes, roads, where it’s coming from, multiple storage facilities,” Neff said. And while sudden systemic agricultural reform would both be hard and come with its own risks, Puma argued, there’s “low-hanging fruit” like fighting the increasing “consolidation of farmland,” reducing overreliance on fertilizer and pesticides, and being a little more skeptical of so-called smart agriculture: “If you’re introducing the use of drones into the agricultural system, that’s a new type of risk to take into account.”

Then there are things that can be done quickly, and locally. Communities that “had been doing some of this work before the pandemic hit were better able to adapt” to the 2020 disruptions, Neff said. And “one of the key things was having people in the local food system connected to each other and knowing each other and having those relationships in the first place so people knew who to call and contact and help develop responses.”

You’ll be reading more about food system resilience and agriculture reform at TNR shortly. But in the meantime, if you’re not feeling exactly reassured as you read this, you’re not alone. At the end of these calls, given the lack of preparedness at the governmental level, I asked whether the people who have been socking away hundreds of pounds of rice and beans in their basements might have the right idea, if not exactly an equitable one.

“The preppers definitely do have a point,” Puma said. “I think it’s a multiscale solution, and I think low-hanging fruit is to encourage people to have more food stored at home so that they’re not as vulnerable. You want to have a little buffer capacity as individuals so if there’s no food for a week you’re not scrambling.”

Good News/Bad News

Competition among states for the Climate Pollution Reduction Grants instituted by the Inflation Reduction Act have resulted in a new crop of ambitious climate proposals from Democratic governors, Politico reports.

A new report has officially confirmed that air quality last year in the U.S. was dreadful.

Stat of the Week
0.92–3.23 percentage points

That’s how much climate change could be inflating food costs per year by 2035, according to a new study. By that point, climate change could also be contributing to overall inflation (“headline inflation”) by up to 1.18 percentage points per year. Read Axios’s summary here.

What I’m Reading

You may remember stunning photos circulating last year of Tulare Lake, long ago drained for agricultural use, reappearing in California’s Central Valley thanks to record precipitation. “Scientists and officials predicted the lake could remain for years to come, sparking consternation among the local farmers whose land was now underwater and excitement from others who saw the lake as a fertile nature sanctuary and sacred site,” writes The Guardian’s Dani Anguiano. Perhaps just as remarkable as the lake’s reappearance, however, is the fact that it’s almost entirely gone just a year later:

These days the crowds of eager tourists have waned, and the shoreline is getting harder to find. On a recent drive through the central valley, I decided to try my best to see what was left of it.

On a sunny afternoon in late February, almost a year after its arrival, the road closure signs still in place around the county served as the most visible reminder of the lake. They blocked long stretches of muddy roads leading to agricultural facilities.

The remnants of Tulare Lake are located entirely on private land, far from where the public can see it. It has reduced rapidly in size as local agencies moved water from the lake to nearby farmlands. Evaporation also played a “key role.”

Read Dani Anguiano’s report at The Guardian.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

The Bleak Backdrop to the Kate Middleton Frenzy

Much like “covfefe” in 2017, the internet is converging on a story that feels safer than everything else that’s going on.

Newspapers lie on top of one another showing front-page stories about Kate Middleton.
Ming Yeung/Getty Images
U.K. newspaper coverage of Catherine, Princess of Wales, being admitted to the hospital on January 18

Dozens of pieces in legacy media publications, including TNR, have looked for broader meaning in the social media frenzy over Kate Middleton’s “disappearance” since Christmas. (To recap: The princess was supposed to be recovering from planned surgery away from the public eye. But the internet was suspicious, and to quell rumors the palace released an image earlier this month that then proved to be heavily edited, for which Middleton claimed the blame. This did not help.) Some say the public relations mess signals a general crisis for the monarchy, some that it’s a sign of contemporary addiction to conspiracy theories. A professor of media ethics told The New York Times that it’s a symptom of “the darkness that is characterizing our politics.”

To me, the flurry of amateur Kate Middleton sleuthing, memes, and jokes on social media resembles nothing so much as the viral “covfefe” tweet by Donald Trump nearly seven years ago. Just after midnight on May 31, 2017, Trump typed the nonsensical, “Despite the constant negative press covfefe,” and seemingly logged off for the night. Because journalists and other political obsessives had learned to keep an eye on Trump’s account during the witching hour, Twitter promptly lit up with confusion and speculation about what Trump could have meant, or whether he’d been tackled while typing. Some created “covfefe” parody accounts. The entire internet, it seemed, had descended into giddy absurdity.

Like the “covfefe” episode, the Middleton frenzy has the feel of a massive online community blowing off steam. You can’t say it’s “good clean fun,” exactly—the speculation ranges from salacious to downright grim. But it has the classic “covfefe” mixture of jokes and theories edged with faint nervousness about such obvious incompetence in the P.R. apparatuses of powerful institutions. It’s the incredulous but gleeful vibe of kids realizing that the adults who were supposed to have everything under control are tripping over their own shoelaces. “I don’t think u understand how badly you’ve f***ed this,” read one tweet with over 36,000 likes, responding to alleged Kate Middleton photos. “There are now people on the internet who could SHAKE HER HAND and still claim she’s four cats in a wig.”

Also like “covfefe,” the Middleton moment has people nostalgic for a more innocent era: a time when the internet seemed like a place to clown around rather than a place for fascist paramilitary recruitment. A time when people could laugh at the grown-ups screwing up because we retained a shred of belief that the grown-ups basically had things under control the rest of the time.

None of these jokes and memes are actually fun when you zoom out. The “covfefe” episode proved to be a precursor for Trump threatening nuclear war on Twitter, getting banned for inciting an insurrectionist mob, then getting his account restored (along with many other accounts banned for hate speech) after Elon Musk bought the platform. The Middleton frenzy contains more than a hint of the macabre: Speculating wildly about the lives of people recovering from major surgery isn’t nice, and doing so as a distraction from other news stories, while understandable, is bleak.

The grown-ups—meaning the institutions that have inherited massive power in our society—quite evidently do not have things under control. The other stories people have the option of reading about are almost impossibly grim. A genocide is playing out in Gaza, and the nations who joined the “Never Again” refrain after Rwanda are actively supporting the genocidal regime. Trump, who many hoped would fade into chaotic obscurity after losing the 2020 election, seems quite likely to regain the presidency—and The New York Times is running stories about the resistance being tired.

Whether the world can withstand this turn of events is unclear. The earth may be warming even faster than anticipated, and rich nations still haven’t gotten it together to bring emissions down to safe levels. Environmental groups, who have been warning for years that the Biden administration, despite the Inflation Reduction Act, isn’t doing enough to avert catastrophe, find themselves with little choice but to hope that Biden will at least prevail over the alternative.

Of course people are going off about Kate Middleton. But it has nothing to do with Kate Middleton. This story is a fantasy about returning to the 1990s, when people could indulge in celebrity gossip without the feeling of laughing on the brink of the abyss. Almost every other story in the news is too much to take.

Good News/Bad News

The EPA has, at long last, fully banned asbestos.

The new and relatively weak Securities and Exchange Commission rule requiring companies in some situations to disclose their emissions and climate-related risks has already been halted by court order pending a suit from oil and gas companies. Meanwhile, 24 Republican state attorneys general are suing over the Environmental Protection Agency’s new rule to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas industry activities—for example, by monitoring leaks and limiting flaring. The Republican attorneys general say this is an “attack” on the oil and gas industry.

Stat of the Week
$9 billion

That’s how much taxpayer money since 2012 has gone to subsidizing plastic plants. “In the past three years, more than 80 percent of the facilities violated their air pollution control permits,” reports DeSmog.

What I’m Reading

FBI sent several informants to Standing Rock protests, court documents show

Alleen Brown’s report on the extent of federal law enforcement’s actions against the Indigenous demonstrators and their allies protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline beggars belief:

Up to 10 informants managed by the FBI were embedded in anti-pipeline resistance camps near the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation at the height of mass protests against the Dakota Access pipeline in 2016…. The FBI also regularly sent agents wearing civilian clothing into the camps, one former agent told Grist in an interview. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA, operated undercover narcotics officers out of the reservation’s Prairie Knights Casino, where many pipeline opponents rented rooms, according to one of the depositions.

The operations were part of a wider surveillance strategy that included drones, social media monitoring, and radio eavesdropping by an array of state, local, and federal agencies, according to attorneys’ interviews with law enforcement.

Read Alleen Brown’s full report at Grist.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.